The Impact of Playmaking Bigs on Transition Defense.

Having big men that can pass has always been a boon to NBA offenses. Classically, that meant passing out of post up double teams or dishing out of the high post. But as the league has adopted four- and five-out offenses, the role has evolved. Many modern offenses like Golden State’s, which we’ll just call Renaissance offenses because they incorporate aspects of many different schemes, depend on their big men to make more complex decisions. This opens up a universe of options, making them harder to defend. Orchestrating these offenses also requires more discipline and cohesiveness. As does transitioning into defense.
Moving from the high post to the top of the key undoubtedly aids one’s ability to get back on defense. That’s pretty intuitive. Having your big man as the first one back on defense is also appealing. He’s mostly likely to affect shots at the rim. However, bigs are typically pitted against much faster guards in these scenarios, creating the need for quick, accurate decision making. Other facets of Renaissance offenses require more foresight, like simultaneous action on the weak and strong sides.
We’ll study how teams can best get back on defense out of Renaissance offenses through looking at what happens when the big man commits a live ball turnover. The main reason being that these instances usually happen in the middle of an action, so it gives us a snapshot of how to set up your transition defense without taking anything away from the offense itself.
The most obvious deficiency for transition defense is a lack of effort. Most people generally associated getting back on defense solely with determination. While it’s not that simple, trying hard is crucial. Watch Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler loaf back on defense. Chandler’s not in position to guard Gasol’s cut to fill the middle lane, which pulls Nelson into the paint and leaves Conley open for a three. Even if Nelson closes out properly, Parsons has a pretty easy attempt coming one pass away, then Green after him. The initial break is stopped, but failure to follow up with support gives up an open look.

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Notice the contrast in how Tony Allen deters the pass into the post as the ball is contained. Randolph and Gasol are trailing the play ahead of the opposition, so Boston’s second wave has nowhere to go.

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Where the turnover occurs is another thing to notice in these clips. It’s a lot easier for a team to recover from an errant pass into the paint than if someone gets their pocket picked at the top of the key. That’s another intuitive bit to these plays which has meaningful implications. However, these clips illustrate how effort and personnel can compensate for a seemingly perilous turnover. A passing turnover into the key like Jokic’s would seem less deadly than Gasol’s in a vacuum. You’d rather have the slowest, biggest player 25 feet closer to the hoop to start a possession. But it’s less concerning when Tony Allen torpedoes from the corner to blow up the opposing transition offense. As with any facet of the game, personnel makes a big difference in transition defense.
Here we have another example of a turnover in a precarious position.

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Of course, turning it over at the top of the key is something you’d most want to avoid. But the other area of concern here is the lack of court balance the Kings have here. It transforms this bad turnover into free points for Oklahoma City. Uncoincidentally, the same lack of court balance that makes this drive a fool’s errand by Cousins also renders the Kings ill-prepared for defense. Turnovers are always going to happen. But having proper geometry can cuts down on them while also aligning transition defense.
Using these parameters: effort, personnel, and court balance, we can dissect how some teams with playmaking bigs have failed and succeeded to set up their defense with their offense. There are some key decision points which broadly apply to most game situations and help us assess the parameters above: where a player is when the ball handler starts their action, how they react to the move, and how they react to the outcome of the move (effectively where the ball goes next).
Like many Renaissance offenses, Denver ran a lot of off ball action through pindowns and down screens with Jokic directing traffic from the top of the key.

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Two things jump out here: Wilson Chandler’s lack of effort and Nikola Jokic’s lack of speed. Most players in Jokic’s position recover this ball. Chandler, knowing his teammate’s limitations, cannot let Thad Young break the the containment he forms with Jokic at the top of the key. If you imagine a line between Chandler and Jokic, it’s Chandler’s job to keep Young in front of that line by dropping back while Jokic pursues the ball. That’d slow Young down, allowing other Nuggets time to re-enter the frame.

This is a simple example of how effort level can overcome – or exacerbate – personnel weaknesses in transition defense. Numbers would indicate that the Nuggets are cognizant of this when Jokic is playmaking. Jokic was joined by two teammates above or near the break on 17.4 percent (15/86) of his live ball turnovers last season. That didn’t help matters too much, as the Nuggets were in only the 4th percentile in points per possession off of turnovers.
One critical mistake Jokic often makes is chasing the ball after he turns it over. With his lack of speed, every moment counts in retreating defensively. Criminals don’t linger at the scene of the crime; turnovers should be treated no differently.

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One’s initial reaction is to immediately get the ball back, but the best thing to do is to just play good old-fashioned defense. Watch Marc Gasol repress the urge to chase the loose ball and find his Karl-Anthony Towns in transition. While that ball might be attainable, he knows getting back on defense is a safer bet.

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But good schemes only help as much as they’re executed by capable players. Here’s an example of Denver having enough defenders back on defense, but still allowing an easy shot attempt. This is a 3-on-4 break; chalk this open three up to a lack of communication between Gallinari and Nelson.

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Nelson stays in the paint a few beats too long in anticipation of a pass to Jimmy Butler, who was pretty well covered by Gallinari. Another noteworthy aspect of this play is that it comes off of a post up from Jokic. Most Renaissance offenses don’t incorporate too many pure post ups. But they can be a staple for playmaking bigs, who can hit cuts to the rim or whip passes to open shooters. A far more static action, it’s easier for an offense to sort out its spacing. Fanning out along the three-point arc isn’t too complicated. But, it also allows the defense more time to load up on the ball handler and read his passing options. Everything in basketball happens in reaction to the ball, which makes having it an inherent advantage. Affording the defense more time to think minimizes that advantage.

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Of course a team that’s already attentive to transition defense won’t have as much of a problem here. Memphis stops the break with a Euro-foul here, but it’s a good illustration; Utah’s off to the races without missing a beat. Overall, it’s probably better to force an opponent into exercising their brain’s task elasticity. Post ups more often result in turnovers on skip passes, which tend to be more easily turned into scoring opportunities at the other end.

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The off-ball action that keys most Renaissance offenses can also be used to support transition defense. It also keeps the defense mentally occupied. Here’s a decent example from Denver.

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Jamal Murray lifts as Wilson Chandler cuts off of Jokic into the paint. In addition to taking his defender out of the play (or creating an open look for himself), it puts him in better defensive position. On the weak side, Gallinari and Harris swap positions, lifting Harris. Ideally, Harris and Gallinari run an action here which frees up one for a shot in the process of balancing the court. A bit of observational conjecture, many of these passes come trying to force scoring opportunities. If either Harris or Gallinari presents themselves as scoring threats, it’s possible Jokic doesn’t get so locked into Chandler.
Here, Golden State’s impromptu floppy-like action gets Klay Thompson and Steph Curry back on defense before San Antonio even has a chance to break.

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This forced curl highlighted by Nick Sciria on Twitter is one of many tricky off-ball wrinkles which fits the bill.

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Watching Memphis and Golden State provides lessons that teams like Denver, Portland, or Minnesota could use with their big-initiated sets. Playing with a big man passer requires not only that others cut to get the ball, but also that they cut in reaction to the ball. Following up on that, when a big makes backdoor passes off of a dribble hand off option, the weakside wing has to sprint up to the top of the key, both for a kick out and to get back. Most offensive principles about clearing and filling space apply to transition defense, too. Again, court balance and reacting to the ball are key. Vince Carter saves a basket here by orbiting the ball then beating Gordon Hayward down the court after Ingles strips Gasol. If Gasol doesn’t lose the ball, this play could turn into an open three for Carter. These are the little plays that have helped extend his career.

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This play is textbook from Golden State (well, except the part where they turn it over). Klay Thompson gets back here with a simple clear cut. Iguodala stops the ball with a few hard strides, and everyone else locates a man.

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When a big turns it over, it’s far more beneficial for them to backpedal immediately, keeping the whole court in view, than to wait until the opposition possesses the ball before turning his back and running.

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A small caveat to the previous rule, the Warriors seem to do a good job of knowing when to pressure the ball and when to run back after a turnover. If Kenneth Faried has the ball, it could be worth pressuring him. If Russell Westbrook picks it up, get the hell back.

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We can consider how many people should be back as a constraint for what to run. That answer will differ according to personnel. Draymond Green needs less assistance than Jokic or Cousins. He’s far more mobile. As we can see in the table below, Green is left back with one teammate 21.5 percent of the time, the highest amount of any of the four bigs in this study. He was often joined by Kevin Durant, another mobile, high-impact transition defender. With Andre Iguodala frequenting the corners and rushing into transition plays, they had a little more breathing room than other teams. Green’s low post up totals compared to the other three bigs, especially Cousins and Gasol, also contribute to that disparity.

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Gasol and Cousins most frequently have two or more teammates back when they turn it over, which makes sense when we see that they’re two of the highest volume post up players in the league. Jokic trails them slightly in post ups, a trend which follows in how many players are back during his turns. Cousins used a fair amount of possessions in isolation last year, which aligns with the fact that he was rarely the only player back on defense and frequently turned it over with only one teammate back.

Post Ups

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Isolations

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Touches

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What hurt Golden State in the regular season was effort. The contrast between their extremely disciplined defense and fast n’ loose offense can best be seen in their points allowed off of turnovers. While Marc Gasol doesn’t possess the mobility of Green, the amount of time he spends operating in the pinch post and low post positioned two faster players back. As we can see, the same was true for Jokic and Cousins, but neither Denver nor Sacramento were able to slow the opposition down. Like Gasol, Memphis’ other crafty vets had a feel of when and where to shade over a few steps in anticipation of sprinting back. Those head starts usually add up to good defense. Memphis ranked in the 86th percentile of points allowed per possession off of turnovers. The difference between Rudy Gay or Danilo Gallinari and Tony Allen or Andre Iguodala is extremely significant on these plays.

The teams that lead the league in points allowed off turnovers, Miami, Utah, Detroit, San Antonio, etc, all have coaches reputed to value disciplined play. The worst teams, New Orleans, Denver, Phoenix, Cleveland, etc, all struggled with the finer details of basketball schematics in other areas than transition defense. This does not represent an outright coaching failure. The top eight teams on the list have all had the same coach for at least three years, other than Memphis, whose Grit N’ Grind identity has long been in place. Those at the bottom have seen far more coaching tumult, have less talent on the roster, or both.
Like in any aspect of sport, it’s hard to precisely assign blame to the parties involved. But points allowed off turnovers seems, at first glance, to be a good measure for ‘next play speed,’ a term coaches use when describing how quickly players can move from one play to the next. There’s not an exact correlation between defensive rating and defense off of turnovers. It invokes the previously mentioned ‘task elasticity,’ and directly calls upon previously mentioned parameters of reacting to the ball. However, how well this statistic approximates ‘next play speed’ is a subject for further research. The main takeaway here is that Renaissance offenses with playmaking bigs can help transition defense more than one may think, but only so far as there’s effort, good personnel, and court balance.

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